His photos are a snap

SJU senior is a professional sports photographer

June 7, 2011

By Mike Killeen

Find a sports event in the area, and you'll likely find Brace Hemmelgarn.

He's on the sidelines with football coach John Gagliardi and basketball coach Jim Smith at Saint John's University athletic events. He covered Brett Favre's last touchdown pass (at least, for now), and hopes to see Jim Thome's career home run No. 600 down the road.

But you may have trouble identifying the SJU senior at your favorite athletic event. That's what happens when you have a camera in front of your face.

Hemmelgarn has compiled an impressive portfolio in three short years as a professional sports photographer. His pictures have appeared in the 2011 Super Bowl program, magazines like Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, newspapers such as USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, on a Topps 2010 baseball card and websites like SI.com, ESPN.com and Yahoo! Sports.

He's currently employed as a part-time photographer for the Minnesota Twins, and with Icon Sports Media and US Presswire, two photography wire services which deliver digital photos to newspapers, magazines, websites and television stations.

Not bad for a 21-year-old communication major who has "never taken a class or anything (in photography). I've taught myself everything, bought my own equipment and kept learning myself," Hemmelgarn said. "It happened very fast. I wasn't expecting it."

Back up just a bit. Hemmelgarn's father, Michael, took pictures of young Brace and his brother, Brett, while they were growing up playing sports.

"That's where I kind of got interested in photography," Hemmelgarn said.

In 2006, Hemmelgarn first "dabbled" with a camera, sneaking down to the lower-level seats to take photos at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. One year later, he did the same thing - one day after Hemmelgarn scored the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning for the St. Cloud Cathedral High School baseball team in the state Class 2A championship game at St. Cloud's Dick Putz Field.

"My dad was standing above the dugout at Putz, and got a picture of me sliding into home as my teammates are running toward home plate (to celebrate)," Hemmelgarn said. "It was a sweet photo, and that picture got me even more interested."

Hemmelgarn started at SJU in the summer of 2008 and soon went to work as a graphic designer in the Institutional Advancement office. His supervisor was John Biasi, a gifted photographer in his own right.

"He was my mentor not only in graphic design, but in photography as well. He helped me with everything," Hemmelgarn recalled.

Toward the end of his first year at SJU, Hemmelgarn said he noticed himself taking a bigger liking to photography.

"Early on, I was shooting for fun. But I really started getting into it a lot more. I knew I wasn't going to go anywhere big with (playing) sports, and I knew that photography was something to help me get in to sports and keep me in the game. I just continued to grow and didn't stop working," Hemmelgarn said.

His experience as an athlete - he's a member of the Johnnie baseball team after playing baseball, soccer and basketball at Cathedral - helps when he's shooting an event.

"Once you play sports, you know what's coming. You can anticipate different actions and situations," Hemmelgarn said. "Timing is one thing. But, you have to be lucky for the action to happen, and you have to be good to capture the action as well."

Hemmelgarn has built his impressive portfolio through networking. "I started with St. Cloud State University hockey and worked my way up," Hemmelgarn said. "I emailed the (University of Minnesota) photographer and introduced myself. His niece goes to the College of Saint Benedict. He let me shoot voluntarily for the Gopher football team for its first season (at TCF Bank Stadium). Through that, I met other photographers at games.

"Building a reputation is probably the biggest thing in the photo world, because that's how I got my Twins' job. I met the Twins' photographer, met the media relations people and asked a couple of questions. This past off-season, they emailed me and said they were having a part-time job opening and asked if I would be interested."

He's excited about the possibility of covering Thome's march to 600 home runs for the Twins.

"A lot of times in photography, you don't know what's coming, but with Thome, you know it's something big and you know it's coming and needs to be captured," said Hemmelgarn, who will shoot over half of the Twins' home games this season.

All with the camera firmly planted in front of his face.